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Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes–How Serious Is It?

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As researchers more about the long-term effects of head injuries, particularly in athletes, studies found that multiple head injuries could result in lasting damage to the brain, and CTE was discovered.

Perhaps you’ve heard about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, often referred to as CTE, in news articles about concussions in popular sports like football and boxing. Or, maybe you’ve heard about the upcoming movie centered around the subject starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the first pathologist to detect CTE in a former NFL player.

Just how serious and widespread is CTE? More than you might think.

What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive, degenerative brain disease that affects people who have sustained multiple concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. CTE causes gradual deterioration of the brain and eventual loss of brain mass. Some areas of the brain will also have an accumulation of tau protein. Tau protein stabilizes the cellular structure of the neurons in the brain, but when they become defective, they can interfere with the neurons’ normal function.

Symptoms of CTE start slow and get progressively worse over time. Initially, symptoms may be similar to the symptoms of a concussion, even without a recent head injury: loss of memory, having trouble concentrating, disorientation, confusion, spells of dizziness, and headaches. Eventually, CTE can cause impulsive or erratic behavior, impaired judgement, aggression, depression, dementia, and symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, including problems with speech and walking. The symptoms are often mistaken as part of the normal aging process, or are misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, which both produce similar symptoms.

Who is At Risk?

Since as far back as the 1920s, CTE has been known to be a problem among boxers, although back then it was known as dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome.” Only in more recent years was it discovered that the condition could exist in others, especially athletes in other sports. CTE was first discovered in a former NFL player in 2002 by Dr. Bennet Omalu, but since then there have been several more reported cases of the condition among football players. In fact, a study of the brain tissue of 128 former football players found that just under 80% of the sample tested positive for CTE. Although the donated brains were of football players suspected to have had CTE, that is still a concerning statistic.

CTE isn’t just limited to boxers and football players, however. CTE was found in the brain tissue of former pro wrestlers Chris Benoit and Andrew “Test” Martin. Although the condition is most commonly found in athletes, it could occur in military personnel or anyone else who has sustained repetitive head trauma or multiple concussions.

How is CTE Diagnosed and Treated?

Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm a diagnosis of CTE in living patients. Currently, the only diagnostic method available is a post-mortem examination of the brain. CTE will not show up on an imaging test like an MRI or CT scan. Although researchers are working on finding a way to diagnose the condition in living patients, no method exists at this time.

Research organizations like the CTE Center at Boston University, the Brain Injury Research Institute, and the Sports Legacy Institute are all working to gather more information about CTE and possible diagnosis methods by studying donated brain samples of those suspected to have CTE, as well as conducting studies with living athletes suspected to have the condition. Although symptoms like depression and anxiety can be treated, there is currently no cure for CTE.

 

The discovery of CTE in football players and other athletes is a great breakthrough that will hopefully lead to better safety precautions in all sports. Athletes, coaches, and sports organizations should work together to promote awareness of CTE, recognize head injuries, and prevent future occurrences whenever possible. The future well-being of athletes depends on it.